This week, we explore a few key growing regions for cabernet sauvignon — the French region of Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon’s ancestral home) and the California counties of Sonoma and Napa.
The city of Bordeaux is our first stop.
The wine region that takes its name from this city expands in a radius of approximately 100 km from the city. The name Bordeaux means “bordered/bound by the waters” and the region is easily divided by its primary rivers, the Gironde (stretching north-northeast from the city and emptying into the Atlantic Ocean) and its two tributaries, the Garonne (flowing from the southeast into the Gironde) and the Dordogne (flowing from the east into the Gironde just north of the city.). Facing the direction of the flow of the Gironde into the Atlantic, the area on the left is known as the left-bank. The left-bank is divided into two areas, the Médoc (north of the city) and Graves (south of the city and west of the Garonne). These are the areas with which we are concerned today as the red wines of these areas are predominantly cabernet sauvignon. Bordeaux wines (both red and white) are almost always a blend of at least two (sometimes more) varietals of grapes (but always either white or red grapes, never both). The left bank features gravelly, well draining soil in which cabernet sauvignon grows best, while the opposite side of the river (the right-bank), has heavier, water-retaining clay soil to which merlot is better suited. Most vineyards, regardless of the side of the river on which they are situated, are planted with several varietals as a way to “hedge bets” in the event that a one varietal suffers during the growing season. Blending is both the natural extension of co-planting and is a way to use the strengths and characteristics of each varietal to make a more complex, complete and integrated wine. Cabernet sauvignon is often thought of as the bones or structure of the blend, while merlot is often perceived as the flesh or roundness of the wine. Other red grapes (cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec) may also be used in the blends for red Bordeaux. While some of the most expensive and sought-after wines in the world are from this region, many are approachable and serviceable wines — good quality at a good price.
Wines from Bordeaux will almost never name the grapes used on the front label (although a few may list them and their proportions on the back label), so familiarity with the appellations is key to knowing what is in the bottle. Almost all red wines grown and produced in Bordeaux may be labeled Bordeaux, but wine of more specific appellations will almost always take advantage of the prestige and quality connotations that the appellation represents. Utilization of the highest level of appellation for which a wine qualifies is common practice throughout the wine world. Key red-wine appellations on the left-bank include:
The area west of the Gironde River and north of the city of Bordeaux.
- Haut-Médoc — The high- or upper-Médoc (based on the direction of the flow of the river), is the southern portion of the the Médoc, including the communes/townships of (north to south):
- St. Estephe — This commune’s heavier soils, closer to the mouth of the river, produce wines of a rustic, dense character. Due to the heaviness of the soil, a higher percentage of the grape merlot may be used than in other left-bank communes, but the blend is still generally cabernet sauvignon dominant.
- Pauillac — The diversity of soil in and around Pauillac lends to a wider range of styles than in most of the left-bank communes, from subtle and elegant, to bold and opulent. Many of the most highly regarded wines in Bordeaux are produced in Pauillac.
- St. Julien — The smallest commune of Bordeaux, St. Julien none-the-less is home to more “classified” producers than any other commune (more on this in a moment. . .). Top wines from this commune tend to possess a refined precision and are some of the best values available from the left-bank.
- Listrac-Moulis — Further west, away from the river’s banks, Listrac and Moulis are the only communes in the Médoc that are not home to any “classified” producers. Further away from the river, the soils of these communes are heavier and retain more water. The resulting wines tend to lack the finesse of their neighbors closer to the river. Excellent examples do exist, however, especially within the “Crus Bourgeois” designation (more on this in a moment).
- Margaux — The largest of the Médoc communes, Margaux is the furthest upriver (south) and possesses the lightest, most gravel-laden soils. Margaux wines can display wonderful contradictions of grace and power, refinement and exuberance.
So named for its gravel-based soil, Graves is the area west of the Garonne River. Although most well-known for its white wines, the area actually produces slightly more red wine than white wine. In fact, Graves is the only area in Bordeaux in which most producers make both red and white wines.
- Pessac-Léognan — Pessac-Léognan, the northernmost portion of Graves, was recognized as its own appellation by the French government in 1987. Many of the best wines (red and white) in Graves are found in Pessac-Léognan. Chocolate and fruit notes are among the notable characteristics of Pessac-Léognan red wines.
Layered onto the communes listed above, there is a veritable web of classification systems for wines in Bordeaux. We will discuss these in depth in a future article, but the classifications that apply to the left-bank red wines are:
- The Bordeaux Classification of 1855 — Created at the request of Napoléon III, this most famous classification ranked the producers on the left-bank not by quality, but simply by market value (in other words, by cost). There are five levels, referred to as “Crus” or “Growths” (cru is the past-participle of croître, “to grow”) specified in the 1855 Classification — although only the first (premiere) growths will indicate the level on the label. This classification is assigned to the producing château, not to the actual vineyards, and (with one notable exception) has never been revised. When you read about a “classified” Bordeaux wine or “Grand Cru Classé”, it is highly likely that this is the classification being referenced (although “Grand Cru Classé” is confusingly used for a different classification on the right bank).
- The Graves Classifications of 1953 and 1959 — Producers in Graves were not included in the Classification of 1855 (with the singular exception of Château Haut-Brion), but were classified in 1953 and again in 1959. This classification is for both red and white wines. There is one level known as “Cru Classé.”
- Cru Bourgeois — Cru Bourgeois is a classification of the best producers in the Médoc not included in the 1855 Classification. It was first awarded in 1932 and renewed every 10 years there-after, until an upset in 2003 led to the cancellation of the Cru Bourgeois. The classification was resurrected in 2008, but as an alliance of approximately 300 quality focused producers with the goal of publishing an annual quality ranking of members. The 2020 classification established three levels — Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur, and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel. These are great bets for quality wine at affordable prices!
- Cru Artisan — Originally created in the 19th century for very small producers, Cru Artisan was brought back to existence in 2006 with re-evaluation every 10 years.
California, I am happy to say, is not nearly as complicated as France. Well, at least it doesn’t have a tangle of classifications with which to contend. . . Our area of concern this week will be within the North Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA). The North Coast AVA (centered on the Pacific coast at the same latitude as the “dog-leg” on California’s border with Nevada) includes portions of (north to south, west to east), Mendocino County, Lake County, Sonoma County, Napa County, Marin County, and Solano County In truth, the North Coast appellation is so broad that it provides little useful information as to the character of the end product. As a point of comparison, the North Coast AVA covers approximately 3,000,000 acres. The Bordeaux appellation covers about 300,000 acres). Indeed, the primary purpose of such a large appellation as North Coast seems to be to allow wines produced from grapes from a very broad and expansive region to be labelled with the status of appellation and/or as “estate bottled.” The latter may be particularly misleading to the consumer as US labeling laws allow for a wine to be labeled “estate bottled” so long as (a) the grapes are from vineyard(s) owned OR leased by the winery, (b) said vineyard(s) is/are within one AVA, and (c) the winery is in the same AVA and the vineyard(s). For our purposes, we will focus on a smaller portion of the North Coast AVA — namely Sonoma and Napa Counties.
Sonoma County may not have quite the caché of its neighbor to the east, Napa County, but it is certainly worth knowing for the excellent quality of wines produced there. The geography and climate (and thus, the terroir) of Sonoma County are quite diverse. The roughly 60 miles of coast can be quite cool, and therefore unsuitable for cabernet sauvignon, which requires more warmth to ripen, but a number of ridges parallel to the coast help either to block or to channel the cold Pacific Ocean air. The areas to which the ocean air is directed are, again, generally too cool for cabernet sauvignon, but the areas from which this cool air is blocked can be ideal for this grape. Most of these warmer areas are in the northeastern portion of the county and include (north to south, west to east):
Alexander Valley — The warm climate and gravelly soil of Alexander Valley produce some of the best cabernet sauvignon in Sonoma.
Dry Creek Valley — West of the southern end of Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley is better known for varietals (like zinfandel and grenache) that prefer warmer climates than cabernet sauvignon, but some excellent cabernet is also produced here. The cool nights help to temper the heat of the day and can help to keep the fruit from becoming over-ripe.
Knights Valley — Knights Valley, between the southern end of Alexander Valley and Napa County, is true farming country that produces fruit used (and prized) by both Sonoma and Napa county wineries (although the appellation is entirely in Sonoma County — more on this when we discuss US labelling laws).
Sonoma Valley — Southeast of Knights Valley (and separated from it by Santa Rosa), Sonoma Valley is home to a good number of wineries known for their cabernet sauvignon. The climate is a bit cooler than in the appellations listed above, but is still quite suitable for quality cabernet sauvignon.
Napa County, to the east of Sonoma County, is by far the most highly regarded and most famous of California’s wine regions — and cab is king here! In addition to being further inland than Sonoma County, Napa Valley (the primary appellation in Napa County) is protected from the cold Pacific Ocean air by the Mayacamas Mountains roughly parallel to the coast. The east side of the valley is defined by the Vaca Mountains. While the valley is protected from Pacific Ocean air, it does act as a sort of conduit for cool air coming off of San Pablo Bay (directly south of the valley). As a result, the southernmost end of the valley can be quite cool and is often better suited to grapes other than cabernet sauvignon. The remainder of the valley, however, is prime territory for cabernet sauvignon. Key appellations (west to east) include:
The Mayacamas Mountains appellations (north to south) of:
Diamond Mountain District — Warm weather, high elevation, and appreciable diurnal shift (day to night temperature change) makes for good cabernet sauvignon (and one of its parent grapes, cabernet franc).
Spring Mountain District — Cooler and with less diurnal shift than Diamond Mountain District, Spring Mountain District is well suited for cooler weather varietals, but produces some beautiful cabernet sauvignon as well.
Mount Veeder — Most vineyards in Mount Veeder are on the slopes and above the fog line, with greater diurnal shift than the valley floor. Cabernet Sauvignon from Mount Veeder tends to be a bit more rustic than the other Mayacamas appellations, but the volcanic, acidic soils lend great distinctiveness.
The valley floor appellations (north to south) of:
Calistoga — The north-eastern edge of Calistoga rests in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, but the bulk of the appellation is on the valley floor. Like Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, Calistoga can be quite hot in the day (making it a great place for warm weather grapes like zinfandel and syrah), with a dramatic drop to cool evening temperatures that also make it suitable for cabernet sauvignon.
Rutherford — The gravelly, well drained soil of Rutherford produces some of the most highly regarded cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley. The wines are characterized by a well-structured tannic frame and (especially if from the “Rutherford Bench,” an elevated stretch on the west side of the valley) a mineral note famously known as “Rutherford dust.”
Oakville — Cabernet sauvignon from Oakville may be less structured than wines from Rutherford, but they have their own opulent, meaty character. The best wines here come from the west side of the valley, in the foothills of the Mayacama Mountains. Vineyards at lower elevations, particularly on the east side, where the valley meets the Vaca Mountains, may produce overly ripe fruit which may result in wines that lack freshness.
Yountville — Yountville produces some truly amazing cabernet sauvignon, but much of the soil is clay based, making it more suitable to merlot
Stags Leap — Stags Leap became an overnight sensation in 1976, when, at the Paris Wine Tasting, it unseated a number of top Bordeaux wines to receive the top ratings. It is this legendary “Judgement of Paris” that convinced the wine world that California, and, in particular, Napa Valley, could produce world class wines. The eastern neighbor of Yountville, Stags Leap is centered around an outcropping of exposed basalt which absorbs and then radiates heat from the afternoon sun. This southern appellation also benefits from cool breezes off of the San Pablo Bay to the south, keeping the fruit from becoming overly ripe. The volcanic soil of the area has a high gravel content, allowing it to drain well, especially on the hillsides.
Oak Knoll District — Closer to the cooling influence of San Pablo Bay, Oak Knoll District is well suited for grapes that require cooler temperatures than does cabernet sauvignon. However, the temperatures are still within the range required to produce quality cabernet sauvignon.
The Vaca Mountains appellations (north to south) of:
Howell Mountain — Warm and dry, the high elevation of Howell Mountain makes a great home for cabernet sauvignon.
Atlas Peak — The climate in Atlas Peak is rather cool and the diurnal shift if slight. The cool-climate loving chardonnay is a better bet here, but there are good cabernet sauvignons produced here as well. Due to the slowness of the grapes’ ripening in such cool weather, cabernet sauvignon from Atlas Peak will tend to higher acidity and brighter fruit tones than from areas to the north.
Coombsville — Even closer to the cooling influence of San Pablo Bay, Coombsville is generally a better site for cool climate grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir, especially on the valley floor. The warmer hillsides are a better bet for cabernet sauvignon.
As we discussed last week, a wine’s character owes in large part to the conditions and influences of the place in which the grapes are grown. To borrow a phrase, terroir is all about “location, location, location. . .” Of course, skill, craftsmanship and quite a bit of science also goes into winemaking, but to get to know a wine, we really must get to know its place of origin. Next week, we will return to France and California to explore a few key growing regions for the white wine grape chardonnay.
Sláinte! (To your health!)
Terrell Abney, Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Society of Wine Educators and Wine Buyer at Corners Fine Wine & Spirits in Peachtree Corners, GA